Bicycle Helmets, Technical Solutions, and Working with Humans

In preparing for a talk next week, I came across this quote from urban planner Pietro Anders Calogero‘s PhD dissertation:

Urban planners usually employ technical rationalities, often assuming that this is the only way to rationally approach a policy problem. Technical rationalities imply a uniform world: indeed, a mobile phone and the chemistry of concrete work the same way regardless of our location on the planet. But political rationalities imply localness, peculiarity, and contingency. 

It is possible to substitute virtually any profession for “urban planners” above, even those who work in policy. We all want to find the “right answer” – the optimal solution that we can use over and over again, finding efficiencies and giving us useful points of comparison.

The problem is that the technically correct solution and the one that will actually work in a specific political context are usually very different. That’s why, in international development scholarship, we’ve started to talk about “second-best” solutions – acknowledging that they might not be ideal, but that it’s better to implement something that’s suboptimal on paper than one that’s a flop in practice.

One great way to think about this is the bicycle helmet paradoxSafety experts always recommend wearing a helmet; in many accidents, they save lives. However, in places where helmets are required, fewer people tend to ride, leading to a less safe system overall, with drivers less aware of cyclists. Perversely, discussions over helmet laws also tend to shift the focus toward individual behavior and away from the infrastructure improvements that have a much larger impact on collective safety.

In other words, when dealing with humans, we should be mindful of the gap between the technically correct option (in our eyes) and the one that is likely to work.

I preach about this all the time in my work – the fallacies of big data, the challenges of using technology to solve social problems – but in my own projects, I am just as likely to get stuck pushing for the perfect solution when it simply isn’t possible to get people to behave that way.

None of us get to make decisions in perfect information environments. Even big data is no match for the uncertainty of human behavior. But when we accept political rationalities – the “localness, peculiarity, and contingency” of each place in time – we begin to see opportunities for solutions that we can actually implement, right now.

It’s a good reminder, to me, that it’s okay for some things to be “imperfect.” Real perfection is in the embrace of the possible.

Labor as Love

Last Sunday, I spoke at TEDxUofW. It was hands down the most difficult public speaking experience of my life to-date. Normally, I like to be in front of a microphone, and I enjoy distilling things into short talks or other pieces. This time, I made it so much harder.

I wanted very much to distill my work into a single ten-minute speech. People keep asking how I do what I do, what it really is, and why I am so passionate about it. As someone who used to define herself as a professional communicator, I am frustrated to discover that I still cannot do this.

Instead, I’d like to break it down into some component parts that may be more effective than a one-size-fits-all talk.

Today, I’ll start with the basics: the infrastructure of the modern workplace. Work does so much more than take up time and energy in our lives. It shapes how we behave outside of work. It can even shape who we are in the world.

Let me use an example. A few days ago, I spoke with a reporter from Crosscut about an upcoming campaign by the Seattle Department of Transportation to encourage behavior change among commuters. If the viaduct crumbles, traffic in parts of the city is going to get even worse – quickly – and we will all need to adjust quickly. That can mean working odd hours. It can mean switching to bus or bike. Whatever people choose, the goal is the same. We need to get cars off the road.

While I fully support efforts to educate people and encourage them to make better choices, this is not a marketing problem. It’s an infrastructure problem. If employers expect everyone to work from 8:00 or 9:00 am to somewhere between 5:00 and 6:00 pm, we will always have a rush hour. If adequate public transit infrastructure is not in place, people will continue to drive. If there is not enough housing located close to work, cycling and walking will be available only to a select few people. And if we don’t consider the needs of working families with children who must attend school or daycare within certain hours, we will see fewer people choose to have children and more demand for two-car garages by those who do.

People are pretty brilliant. We naturally optimize for our own well-being within the constraints of the world around us. Since I run my own schedule, I have been able to manage my commute however serves me best, including by avoiding peak bus times. I also just moved to a place much closer to the other places I need to go during the day. I’ve wanted to be here for a while, but I needed to reach a certain level of revenue before a move to my new neighborhood was feasible. I live a nearly car-free lifestyle and could not be happier – possible only because I am able to run my life in the way that works for me.

In order for a campaign like this one to work, employers have to be on board. They need to allow employees to manage their schedules however works best for them. If they want people to cycle to work, they need to provide showers and other infrastructure. They need to provide childcare and other amenities for working parents. They need to trust their staff to work remotely or split their time between home and office, based on whatever works best for them as human beings. And that, in the modern framework, is a tall order.

Somewhere on the path to corporate citizenship, we began treating corporations as very powerful individuals themselves rather than what they truly are: frameworks that allow large numbers of people to collaborate toward particular goals. Rather than relying on the self-motivation of those people to do that work and reach those goals, the modern corporation is a beast of punishment. It is an engine that runs on carrots and sticks.

Bonuses and other incentives mask terrible work environments in a papier-mache layer of money; contracts and penalties keep people dragging themselves to their desks solely for fear of what will happen to their ability to survive if they leave. A relatively absent social safety net links all of us to our employers in a relationship of perceived total dependency, and a culture that penalizes unemployment keeps people from leaving even toxic relationships until they have found another employer whose arms they can leap into.

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be that way.

I should clarify: I am for companies. I am for corporations. I am immensely proud to share a city with corporations such as Microsoft and Starbucks that lift up the community and use their power to improve people’s lives. I hope one day to grow my own work up into an organization that can do similar things for the world.

However, when it comes to the way companies treat labor, I see tremendous room for improvement. There’s that old adage: “We asked for labor, and people came.” Many companies have responded to this by trying to make people less like people and more like machines (money in –> productivity out). I think we can respond to it by trying to make labor more human.

In my TEDx talk, I described several projects I have executed solely by tapping into people’s intrinsic motivations. Every time I have put on a massive collaborative project, I have done so from a place of zero authority. I had no formal authority over other sections of the U.S. Embassy in Poland when I put together the New Media/New Democracy Forum. I was not in charge of other agencies, other countries’ embassies, or the local organizations who partnered with us in Afghanistan for the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. I certainly had no hard power over the team and partners that came together for Hack to End Homelessness. In order to get anything done, I had to adapt the structure of the work to accommodate what people wanted to do and how they wanted to do it.

In each case, the results were phenomenal – far better than any work I ever got done thanks to being able to tell underlings what to do. This shaped me as a manager. I view management, including project management, as a role equal to all the others. I may provide the hub of the enterprise, but without the support of each and every spoke, I cannot form a wheel. Using this approach, I have been able to do meaningful work in a meaningful way – without ever having to incentivize people with money. In fact, when I have introduced money into these initiatives, that’s precisely the moment when their energy begin to slip away.*

Science backs me up on this. I often refer people to Dan Pink’s phenomenal TED talk, “The Puzzle of Motivation,” for a summary of what we know about what motivates people. The gist of it is this: fear, most often triggered through competition, is a finite source of motivation. It can push people for a short amount of time to perform very basic tasks.

To unlock the creativity that is required for solving complex problems, however, people need to be liberated from fear. Competition doesn’t work. Punishments don’t work. Even prizes don’t work. People need the space to explore their own creative capacity and think expansively about what they want from the world.

Which brings me back to labor. In the current structure of work, it is difficult if at all possible for most people to tap into that creative energy. As a result, employees can only do what they are told, with diminishing value on their time the longer they do it. It is no wonder that people burn out so quickly – even when, like me, they absolutely love the work they are supposed to be doing.

Working in an inhumane bureaucracy is like putting a glass jar over a burning candle and then wondering why the flame goes out (or worse, blaming the candle itself).

The candle is still there. It works beautifully. The wick wants nothing more than to burn. It loves the work it was made to do in the world.

Yet instead of lifting up the jar, we keep lighting new matches. Employers try the same old tricks of carrots and sticks. We rely on brief respites – weekends, brief vacations, and increasingly, sabbaticals – to keep up our self-esteem, but it never works for long. We design projects that give us little bursts of oxygen so we can keep going and still get recognition for being who we used to be. Eventually, gasping for air within these tight containers, we lose touch with who we really are. Even if we do get the courage to leave, it can take years for us to rediscover our passions and re-ignite our flame in a way we can sustain.

My work in the world is to prove that it’s okay for all of us – parents, children, teachers, employers, and government bureaucrats – to lift the jar. The structure of work should empower humans, not try to turn them into machines. (That’s what the machines are for, anyway.) We can give people time, space, and tools to rediscover who they are. Then, we can honor who they are by asking them to do the work they love in the way that works for them. When we do this, my friends, we will have an infinite well of energy and creativity with which to make life better for everyone. When we replace fear with love, there is no problem in the world we cannot solve.

But I’m not waiting for the powerful bureaucracies to change. I weaseled my way out from under the jar, and over the last couple of years, I have rediscovered what lights my fire. I encourage everyone else in the world to do the same. Then and only then will labor be forced to become human again.

* That does not mean I do not pay people or ensure they are otherwise being compensated for their contributions. People cannot offer their gifts if their basic needs are not being met, and the way we meet those needs in our society is with money. I firmly believe that we need to find better ways as a society to pay people to build the things we need – releasing ourselves from structures of ownership and intellectual property – but that’s for another time.

You Will Survive

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Yesterday, I attended the annual benefit luncheon for YWCA, one of our partners from Hack to End Homelessness. YWCA provides a safety net for women in our community by offering housing support, employment services, and the reassurance that women have somewhere to turn. As one of the speakers put it yesterday, what YWCA really does help women “get out of survival mode” – that stressed-out, fear-driven state where everything feels impossible.

Once they turn the corner from survival into life, these women go on to do amazing things. Eighty-six percent of people exiting YWCA housing facilities move on to more stable housing. Six in ten job seekers find work. Children (98 percent of those who participate in YWCA’s programs) go on to meet developmental milestones and/or enroll in kindergarten. The impact of simply caring for people’s basic needs is tremendous.

That should be no surprise to anyone. “Survival mode” is a killer – literally. When we believe that our survival is on the line, we live in constant fear. We avoid risks, even when those risks may be necessary to exit survival mode. We become emotionally unstable, viewing everyone around us as a threat, even those who are trying to help. This mental state reinforces itself, convincing us that there is no way out. It strikes me that the most important thing YWCA does for people is to be there for them, reassuring them that they will survive, and helping them shift toward medium-term and long-term solutions.

While not all of us have experienced the levels of personal, generational, and network poverty faced by one in three women-led households in the United States, we have all experienced “survival mode.”

  • We’ve had to work for bosses who constantly hold over us the threat to fire us and destroy our reputations.
  • We have been in relationships that we felt we could not live without, even when they were not meeting our needs.
  • We have had long-dreamed-of opportunities within our reach and shrank back, terrified that we would not be able to manage the disruption to our known world.

Even when we are far removed from the true survival pressures faced by billions of people on our planet, we are stuck moving through life with cortisol and noradrenaline sabotaging us through our brains and bloodstreams. We gain weight, feel depressed, and worry about whether we’ll be okay.

The current social paradigm in the United States keeps us in survival mode all the time. We often disconnect from our family networks to pursue careers in what is referred to as a “dog-eat-dog world.” Everything, even doing good (or pretending to do good), is a competitive sport.

Silicon Valley Gif

A scene from season two of HBO’s “Silicon Valley”

Does this seem insane to anyone else? Why, in an era of so much plenty, when for most of us, survival is a guarantee, do we continue to be stuck in survival mode? And what can we do to get out of it?

The answer is simple. “Survival mode” is a state of mind. It is harder to battle the closer you are to death, but even then, survival mode is a psychological state – one humans have been stuck in for most of our history, and one we are ready to transcend. To do so, we need to communicate to our egos that everything is going to be okay. Here are a few ways to do that:

First, we can remind ourselves what the edge of survival really looks like. Volunteering with or at least learning about the work of service providers like YWCA can show us just how okay we really are. Philanthropic giving gives us a psychological boost. These activities remind us that, at least from a basic-needs standpoint, we are going to be okay.

Second, we can think back to situations we thought we would never get out of, but somehow did. We may never wish to go back there, but we can eliminate the fear of survival by reminding ourselves that we have survived. We can thank the people who were there for us when things were not okay.

Finally, we can, very intentionally, create support networks in our communities, much like YWCA staff do for their clients. We can remind our friends that they will always have a place to stay and food to eat. We can help them think through the worst-case scenarios and let them know how we will be there for them if those scenarios comes to pass. Recognizing that we all go through times of shortage and plenty, we can create a social safety net of our own.

By living generously, we release ourselves and others from survival mode.

When that happens, we can all go forth and do great things. We can bring our gifts into the world – works of art, acts of service, feats of engineering, study of puzzling problems, resolution of conflict, inspiring stories, management of complex systems, leadership in difficult situations, the next generations of human life. By giving freely to one another, we not only ensure our own survival, we make life richer for ourselves and everyone around us.

So get out there. Know that you will survive. Build communities where no human is left behind. And then, together, let’s get past survival mode and into the life that awaits.

Books

Books have always been hard for me to let go of. I used to think the spines on the shelf could and therefore should reflect the story of my life. They take me back to the days when my only windows to the outside world were the ones on shelves.

Now, the story of my life is much bigger than what fits in my apartment, and I no longer feel the need to carry my past with me into each future moment. In fact, I have found it liberating to whittle down these titles to just the ones that I want with me in the present. It feels amazing to see objects that have played an important role in my life go on to other places where they still have a role to play.

This is the second round of the second purge in the last two years. What friends don’t take will go either to our new library at Impact Hub Seattle or to the Little Free Libraries around my neighborhood. If you want any, please speak now!

***PREVIOUSLY TAKEN (for my head-records):***
The Street of Crocodiles, Bruno Schulz
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Big Sur, Jack Kerouac
The Tartar Steppe, Dino Buzzatti
Berlin Tales, translated by Lyn Marven, purchased–where else?–in Berlin
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham
Baudolino, Umberto Eco
Prague, Arthur Phillips
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
The Inheritance of Loss, Kirin Desai
King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild
Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, Jillian Lauren
Kitchen Confidential
, Anthony Bourdain
The Prince, Machiavelli
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

Fiction

TAKEN! Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence, whose noble cause was, as he wrote in its first introduction, for: “men and women to be able to think about sex, fully, completely, honestly, and cleanly.” We’re still not there yet, are we? This is the original printing press-published erotica, long before 50 Shades and far better written. Don’t take it if you won’t love it.

TAKEN! Everyman, The Ghost Writer, and American Pastoral, Philip Roth.

TAKEN! Suite Francaiseby Irene Némirovsky, a book whose own story is nearly as remarkable as the story it depicts (which you can preview here, in the trailer for the film of the same name, starring Michelle Williams). Némirovsky fled Paris with her family during German occupation and lived in the countryside before being arrested and transferred to Auschwitz, where she died. The book was published in 2004 by her daughter, who found two novellas in what she had thought was her mother’s diary. It is remarkable.

Kaddish for an Unborn Child, by Imre Kertész, who survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the first survivor to win a Nobel Prize.

TAKEN! The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac. A gift that I’m ready to pass on, nearly five years after the Summer of the Epic Post-Breakup Road Trip.

TAKEN! The Joke, by Milan Kundera.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey.

TAKEN–by my lovely neighbor, no less, who’s earning his PhD in theater and shared how much he loved the way Racine adapted Phaedra from its original Greek version into the neoclassical French style. This is fun! Iphigenia, Phaedra, and Athaliah, plays by Jean Racine. I bought this at a bookstore in Princeton, New Jersey, where I had seen Iphigenia during a visit. I thought maybe someday I’d learn French or write plays. Funny.

TAKEN! Against Gravityby Farnoosh Moshiri. Iran meets Texas? Beautiful prose.

TAKEN! Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

TAKEN! Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie.

TAKEN! A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, by Julian Barnes. Yes, this book is remarkable. It meant a great deal to the man who gave it to me. That same man offered to introduce me to Sheryl Sandberg and do many other nice things for me including maybe even take me to the Grammys but only after a proposed late dinner on a Saturday night followed by drinks at his place. Suffice it to say that I’m more interested in living my very own honest life than in accompanying a very rich man to the end of his. That story has nothing really to do with the book, which I hope will find a good home.

TAKEN! The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace. Yes, I read it. Oddly, it’s the only book-length work of DFW I’ve ever read.

TAKEN! This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz.

TAKEN! My Antonia, by Willa Cather.

The Ponder Heart, by Eudora Welty.

TAKEN! Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck. A delightful novella about the big cannery in Monterrey, California. I bought the book in Monterrey itself, in the middle of a road trip, and finished it within two. This one comes with lots of good memories and a recommendation for a trip down the PCH.

TAKEN! Animal Farm, by George Orwell. Owned since high school. Yes, really.

Literature from the “Axis of Evil,” an anthology. I was living in DC and I think I picked this up at Kramerbooks. I just loved the cheekiness of the title.

The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival, by Ken Wheaton. I bought this because Ken is a friend, read it all the way through because it was fun & funny, and would love for someone else to enjoy it next.

TAKEN! The Force of the Past, by Sandro Veronesi. Also hardcover, with a pretty cover, and falls into the category of “Italian fiction,” which I wanted to want to know about but never followed through on.

My Jim, by Nancy Rawles. I saw her speak and loved the voice, but I never read it. That’s not nice to books or local writers. Nancy deserves better.

The Hour I First Believed, by Wally Lamb. (Hardcover.) I have this friend who I love and used to spend a lot of time with. We were gym buddies and bike buddies and dance buddies, and she’s one of the most vibrant humans I’ve ever met. She loved this book, so when I found a copy for $1, I bought it. I never cracked it open. She also loved Dexter and Breaking Bad. My point is, it’s okay and even great to have friends whose tastes you don’t share.

TAKEN! The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. The basis for the film featuring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and Christopher Reeve, which I did not see but would bet blows Downtown Abbey out of the water when it comes to British servant/master and servant/servant and master/politics drama. A worthy airplane read.

TAKEN! One Day, by David Nicholls–one of the most fun books I’ve ever read. I can describe it only as “If Taylor Swift’s ‘You Belong With Me’ were a book, and a good one.” I did not see the movie, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which I purchased at the tiny airport in Kristiansand, Norway, and read on my way back to Warsaw, in 2009. It’s very much a romance and a romp through modern love. I have no shame about owning it, and neither should you.

Nonfiction
/ International Affairs & Development General

Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen.

The Bottom Billion, by Paul Collier.

Soft Power, Joseph Nye. Heavily underlined.

TAKEN! A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power.

TAKEN! Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, by John McNeill. This is the best of the international affairs books on this list. This is an incredible account of climate change, urbanization, and politics. I’d prefer to see it go to someone close to me.

/International Finance & Business

Out of Gas, David Goodstein. For anyone who wants to be able to talk smart about fossil fuels and the petroleum industry.

TAKEN! The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea, by Economist editors John Micklethwaite and Adrian Woolridge. A good summary, from the jacket text: “… the authors reveal how innovations such as limitations on liability have permitted companies to rival religions and even states in importance, as they govern the flow of wealth and control human affairs–all while being largely exempt from the rules that structure our lives.”

The Chastening: Inside the Crisis that Rocked the Global Financial System and Humbled the IMF, by Paul Blustein. Also exceptional. More: “While the IMF and its overseers at the Treasury and the Fed have sought to cultivate an image of economic masterminds coolly dispensing effective economic remedies, the reality is that as markets were sinking and defaults looming, the guardians of global financial stability were often floundering, improvising, and feuding among themselves.”

And, if you want to get really deep into global finance…

Bailouts or Bail-Ins? Responding to Financial Crises in Emerging Markets, by Nouriel Roubini and Brad Setzer.

/Eastern Europe & Russia

The Polish Revolution, Timothy Garton Ash.

Breaking Ground: An Immigrant’s Journey from Poland to Ground Zero, by Daniel Libeskind. I bought this immediately after visiting the Jewish Museum he designed in Berlin.

The Chechen Wars, Matthew Evangelista.

Capitalism and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, a collection of essays that I bought because my research advisor, Stephen Hanson, edited it.

Gibel’ Imperii (Collapse of an Empire), by Yegor Gaidar (hardcover, in Russian). In 2006, I went for a meeting at the Open Society Foundation’s office in Moscow. The office walls were lined with these books. If I’m not mistaken, that office was shutting down, and they were trying to move these quickly out the door and into people’s hands. I must have taken five copies. This is the last surviving.

Homo Zapiens, by Victor Pelevin. This is fiction, but it really belongs here. (Here’s why.)

/Asia (Broadly Defined)

TAKEN! Portrait of a Turkish Family, Irfan Orga.

The Idea of India, Sunil Kilnani.

TAKEN! First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung. Purchased streetside in Phnom Penh.

/Middle East

Dubai, by Jim Krane.

Pity the Nation, Robert Fisk’s massive, comprehensive work on Lebanon and the Civil War (1975-1990).

TAKEN! The Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tolan. My favorite book about the conflict in Palestine. Period.

TAKEN! One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, by Tom Segev. To date, the most comprehensive work I’ve read on the origins of Israel–well-written and fascinating.

TAKEN! Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East, Rashid Khalidi. Leads us right into our next category.

/Iraq

The Fall of Baghdad, Jon Lee Anderson.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq, George Packer. (Hardcover.)

Naked in Baghdad, Anne Garrels. (My favorite of the this bunch.)

/Afghanistan

TAKEN! Descent into Chaos, Ahmed Rashid.

TAKEN! My Brother, My Enemy, Philip Smucker.

TAKEN! Afghanistan, Stephen Tanner.

/U.S. Politics

The Price of Politics, Bob Woodward. (Hardcover.)

Cooking with Grease, Donna Brazile.

/Media

Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq, by Michael Massing.

What Is Happening to News? by Jack Fuller of the Chicago Tribune. (Hardcover.)

The Creation of the Media, by Paul Starr.

/Religion & Philosophy

The Essential Koran.

The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand.

Illuminations, Walter Benjamin.

The Philosophy of Art, by Hegel.

/Smorgasbord

The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. Complete with notes and underlines from a confused young woman just discovering feminism!

TAKEN! The Sheik’s Batmobile, by Robert Poplak, an exploration of how American culture is perceived around the world.

Candyfreak, by Steve Almond. An easy read and the reason I know about Valomilks, which you can buy at Zetigeist in Pioneer Square and are stupidly delicious.

Epitaph for a Peach, by David Mas Masumoto.

Killing Yourself to Live, by Chuck Klosterman, who taught me how to be cool before I realized I didn’t care about being cool.

Foreign Language Learning & Resources
/French

Easy French Reader.

The Berlitz Self-Teacher: French.

/Portuguese

TAKEN! Living Language: Portuguese (cd’s and book).

TAKEN! Lonely Planet Phrasebook: Brazilian Portuguese.

/Polish

301 Polish Verbs.

/Russian

501 Russian Verbs.

Essential Russian Grammar.

Observations on Social Justice

One of my intentions for the new year was to regularly say “yes” to activities outside my normal scope–ones that challenge me, or make me feel uncomfortable, or force me to confront limitations I wish I did not have. I find this especially hard to do in the area of social justice. It’s easy for me to admit that I don’t know how to use a microscope or code in Python or count stars. It’s less easy for me to own up to shortcomings in my understanding of social issues.

But in those areas as in others, I cannot grow without first allowing that I have room to improve–so I’ve been sucking it up and asking for opportunities to learn more about things I feel sort of guilty for not already knowing about.

Last month, I was invited to attend an event on “Race, Art, and Being Black” that forced me to pry open my mind, take in some seriously abstract art, and listen to a conversation that was just beyond my comprehension. I found that I had to take it all in with the same level of non-judgmental acceptance required in foreign cultures. It was uber-intellectual and, ultimately, incredibly satisfying. One of the panelists read aloud from Alexander Weheliye’s Habeaus Viscusand I could almost feel my brain expanding.

This month, I chose to go on a Social Justice Fund site visit to WHEEL–a self-organized community of homeless and formerly homeless women. Their approach to this issue differs sharply from that of many who we partnered with for Hack to End Homelessness last year, and they currently find themselves lobbying against a legislative change proposed by one of those partners. With my voice exhausted from Superbowl screaming, all I could do was listen, and I am grateful for that forced choice. It was an honor to hear their stories and learn why they do things the way they do.

Krishnamurthi said, “The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.” It was difficult, in both contexts, to simply listen without attempting to: a) synthesize what I was hearing immediately into my broader narratives about what’s happening in society, b) rise internally to defend my past self and the way she thought about things before hearing this information, c) react sympathetically in order to bridge the distance between myself and them, d) decide what I thought about what they were saying, or e) spring my brain into action to try to solve some piece of their problems. All of those reactions, while not inherently negative, are evaluations–in other words, judgments.

I can already feel that I am more easily able to turn those reactions off and simply observe. It is a powerful thing to listen that way. I found myself taking in all the invisible meta-data of the conversations–the power dynamics between speakers, the body language, their own reactions to what was said–much more seamlessly than if I were attempting to speak. I have been so busy recently with my own work and project that I almost forgot what that was like.

Observation is truly a practice. It is possible to fall out of habit, even when you have been trained to do it well. If nothing else, I am grateful for this opportunity to remember how to listen.

The End of Optimism

I used to think that the memory of the past was pure fancy. I had no patience for the idealized 1950’s world of October Sky, the small American towns with the boys who carried their schoolbooks in a leather strap, the confinement of women to happy submission. It has always seemed to me that we idealize bygone eras because we never really had to live in them.

Yet there is one piece of that past world that still seems authentic: optimism itself.

The Atlantic just published Charles Fishman’s glorious “5,200 days in space,” which points out how far we have come since the West Virginia boys in October Sky saw Sputnik and dreamed of building rockets. We know so much more about the universe we are in. We are readying ourselves to go to Mars. And yet, for all this, we approach the outer reaches of space with so much less wonder than the newspapers did in 1969. Fishman writes:

It’s a little strange when you think about it: Just about every American ninth-grader has never lived a moment without astronauts soaring overhead, living in space. But chances are, most ninth-graders don’t know the name of a single active astronaut—many don’t even know that Americans are up there. We’ve got a permanent space colony, inaugurated a year before the setting of the iconic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a stunning achievement, and it’s completely ignored.

Perhaps I am being fanciful myself; after all, I live in a bubble, too. In my world, there is much hand-wringing over the state of the planet and the intractability of wars and the overwhelming sadness of a species plagued by self-contempt. I believe that we must do our part to mitigate climate change and inequality and all manner of human suffering, but I am also tired of hearing the cynic’s voice in my head.

What took us to the moon was not fear or disappointment or even politics. What provided the will, the imagination, and the desire to make such a costly thing possible was a combination of forces far greater than these: curiosity and delight.

I wonder, in how many other areas of society, we could cast off our fatigue with the catalogue of problems and simply go with open minds in search of greater wonders.

Big Bad Detective Data

“Yes, Watson, there are good reasons to suspect that there has been a substitution of lodgers.”

“But for what possible end?”

“Ah! There lies our problem.”

– Sherlock Holmes & Watson, in “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

As a kid, I worshipped Sherlock Holmes. What set him apart from other detectives was more than his fine sense of smell, attention to detail, and encyclopedic knowledge of the world around him: It was his deep understanding of people.

Any old hack can string together a series of clues and make up a storyline of best fit. The human mind is wired to seek patterns even where there are none. It’s a lot harder to hold space for the blank parts and ask the right follow-on questions. Only a skilled observer of the human spirit–one with an open mind and the emotional capacity to challenge his own assumptions–will  understand why we do what we do.

Last night, during a Town Hall discussion, Internet ethics professor Irina Raicu talked extensively about big data–who is collecting it (private companies and government entities, largely unregulated), whose data is collected (people with smartphones, Internet-driven lifestyles, and cash to spend) and what decisions they are allowed to make with it (our creditworthiness, the cost of our health insurance, even how long we might be sentenced for a crime).

But the most dangerous part of big data has nothing to do with the fact that it is being collected. After all, the capacity to collect and observe data has led us to major breakthroughs in science and health, and it can do the same for many other social problems. What concerns me is the assumption that data is somehow neutral, making all the predictions and conclusions we make based on them perfect and fair.

What I have found instead is that most of us are blind to our own assumptions about others, and that we become even more blind when we can back up our case with numbers. As I wrote last month about Uber’s controversial “Rides of Glory” post, it’s very easy to come to flawed conclusions about people when we assume that they make decisions for the same reasons we do.

A silly post by Uber may damage our collective data literacy, but it’s not the worst thing that can happen. Unless they start releasing information about each individual rider, the raw data they collected about ridership at certain hours can be useful for optimizing business performance. If they were now obligated to release that data, sans personally identifiable information (PII), it could be used to disrupt Uber’s move toward monopoly and hold the company accountable for its surge pricing.

However, there are cases in which poor analysis has serious consequences for individuals and society alike.

Take, for example, the story of  Umar Farouk Abdulmattab, aka “the underwear bomber.” He had been denied a visa to the United States twice, in face-to-face interviews with U.S. Consuls who knew something was up. But the second time, a supervisor, looking solely at the electronic data in his application, which indicated that his father was a prominent banker, overturned the decision. That decision could very well have cost lives.

As we talk about big data, I try to remember that there is really no such thing. There are big databases, but all they contain are millions of individual data points. Behind each of those data points is a host of subjective judgments that went into the tool or algorithm used to collect it. More importantly, as we sit down to analyze that data and make decisions based on it that impact people’s lives, we bring our own assumptions to the table as well.

Unfortunately, none of us is as brilliant an analyst as the fictional Sherlock Holmes. If we want to understand some higher truth inside the numbers, we have to invite critical thinkers with diverse perspectives into the discussion.

We need more diversity inside governments, companies, and organizations that make decisions based on data.

We need more of that data to be open so that we can scrutinize it and challenge those assumptions.

And, quite frankly, we need more targeted interventions along the lines of Hack to End Homelessness, where we connect well-meaning data analysts with the subject matter experts who have the empathy and capacity for nuanced interpretation to make sure that analysis gets done right.

In other words, if we are going to solve the major mysteries of our time, we need more than the clues themselves. We need to turn ourselves into assumption-challenging machines–less spreadsheet, more Sherlock Holmes.